The Big Picture
The postseason is here and it’s time for the Clippers to put a tumultuous regular season behind them in what could very well be the Core Four’s final shot at a deep playoff run. Despite reaching 50 wins for the fifth straight season, the pre-existing narrative of playoff disappointment makes it likely that the Clippers’ play in the coming weeks will not just serve as a measuring stick for the 2016-2017 season, but also define the enduring legacy of this golden era of Clippers basketball. Words like “stale” and “cursed” have swirled around this enigmatic team in recent seasons, and a first round playoff exit could certainly usher in a major offseason shakeup.
Last season’s string of playoff bad luck that sent the Clippers packing early, combined with the impending free agency uncertainty, had this team looking ahead to the playoffs since training camp began. The reality that this team will be judged solely on their postseason output made this regular season feel less relevant than any that preceded it, as, through the slew of injuries, a general sense of apathy permeated the squad. After coming out of the gates blazing, the Clippers labored through several months of ho-hum basketball before finally flipping the switch and going 11-2 over their last 13 games of the regular season. They’re well aware of what is at stake and their inspired play down the stretch has shown what this immensely talented group is capable of when engaged and healthy.
In that final stretch of games, the Clippers accrued an offensive rating that was tops in the league (116.6) and finished second to only Golden State in net rating (+13.9) thanks, in part, to an improved defense that rebounded mightily from a rather lengthy midseason slump. There’s no doubt that they’re playing their best basketball since their torrid November start, and they’ll look to keep their momentum going against an upstart five-seed: the Utah Jazz.
The impulse to look ahead to the next round is a difficult one to resist, particularly when a juggernaut like the Warriors is likely to be waiting, but the Clippers would be wise to stave off that urge, as the Jazz are a deep, talented team that has the looks of a playoff stalwart for years to come. Led by Gordon Hayward, who has blossomed into an all-NBA caliber wing, Utah has an intriguing mix of promising, high-energy youngsters and versatile, crafty veterans. In his third year as head coach, Quin Snyder navigated an injury-filled regular season and delivered the breakout performance that pundits prophesized in the preseason, guiding the Jazz to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Utah’s calling card is their defense, as they allowed the fewest points per game in the league (96.8) and finished with the third-ranked defensive efficiency (102.7). Anchored by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, who led the NBA with 2.6 blocks per game, the Jazz made a habit of stifling opposing offenses and winning low-scoring affairs. Despite finishing the season 28th in points per game (100.7), Utah just missed out on the top-ten in offensive efficiency (12th, 107.4) and shot a ninth-best 37.2% from downtown. While the numbers may seem paradoxical, the Jazz were able to post relatively high efficiency numbers while not pouring in buckets due to their ability to slow the game down to a crawl. Ranked dead last in pace, their tendency to take the air out of the ball may actually play to the Clippers’ advantage.
In fact, the Clippers match up better against the Jazz than almost any other Western Conference playoff team. Though the Clippers are middle of the pack when it comes to pace, the discrepancy should allow for Chris Paul to be assertive and push the ball up the court often, which will prevent the Jazz from setting up in the half court defense that makes them so menacing. In addition, the Clippers boast one of the few human beings on earth who is able to neutralize all of the things that Gobert does so well (more on that later), and one of the league’s premier wing defenders, in Luc Mbah a Moute, who has proven to be a thorn in Hayward’s side (per Zach Lowe, Hayward is 10/31 from the field with Mbah a Moute on the court, 6/11 with him off the court in four regular season matchups).
But make no mistake, the Jazz are an excellent, well-coached basketball team with a real shot to win this series if the Clippers don’t give them the respect that they deserve.
- Giants in the Paint — The most intriguing matchup of this series should be the knock-down-drag-out battle between DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, two of the most athletically gifted centers in the league today. The accomplished big men have played each other relatively evenly in four regular season matchups, as Jordan averaged 9.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game, while Gobert averaged 13.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. If DeAndre is able to keep pace with Gobert and effectively negate his ability to protect the rim and crash the glass at an elite level, that will be a huge victory for the Clippers. However, if Gobert is able to out-rebound Jordan and take away the threat of the lob on the offensive end, that could spell trouble for a Clippers team that has relied heavily on DJ all year.
- Will We See Playoff Blake? — The lore of Blake Griffin’s 2015 Playoffs run is one well-known to Clippers fans. He played like a man possessed, bullying anyone and everyone in the post, facilitating beautifully, and defending at a high level. It remains to be seen whether newly activated Derrick Favors will start or not, but Blake is likely to be met with defensive resistance courtesy of a combination of a hobbled Favors and Boris Diaw. To be fair, though Diaw’s days of being fleet of foot are long gone, his (for lack of a more polite term) mass did give Blake problems during the regular season. With talk of Joe Johnson also getting minutes at the small-ball four, the power forward position looks to be the most advantageous for the Clippers. Unfortunately, his playoff run last season was cut short, but if Blake is able to tap into whatever it was he was tapping into in 2015, Utah will be hard-pressed to find a way to slow him down.
- No Further Assistance Needed — Fascinatingly, the Jazz were among the league’s worst when it came to assists per game (28th, 20.1) during the regular season. This bodes well for the Clippers, a team that struggles most on the defensive end when forced to rotate over and over again against teams that move the ball along the perimeter exceptionally well. With DeAndre Jordan patrolling the paint and able-bodied on-ball defenders in Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute, the Clippers would much prefer for the Jazz to try and beat them with an isolation-heavy offense, as opposed to one that is based upon relentless ball movement.
- The Experience Question — This is the Clippers’ sixth consecutive trip to the postseason and there should be no mystery about what lies ahead. Doc Rivers brings a championship pedigree and the Core Four has run the gamut from series triumphs to season ending heartbreak (especially the heartbreak one) countless times. On the other side, Quin Snyder will be coaching in his first playoffs and, despite a strong veteran presence amongst Utah role players, such as Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, his two stars, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, are inexperienced. As an NBA-sophomore, Hayward played poorly in 30.8 minutes per game in a first-round series in which the Jazz were swept by San Antonio, while Gobert has seen no postseason action at all. Though it hasn’t always ended well, the Clippers have been there before, and that has to count for something.
- Clippers X-Factor — His name hasn’t been mentioned yet, but Jamal Crawford is going to be leaned on to produce for the inconsistent Clippers’ second-unit, particularly given Austin Rivers’ absence for at least the first two games. Despite a slow start to the season, Crawford has come on strong since the All-Star Break, averaging 12.1 points per game on a relatively efficient 43.3% from the field and 40.0% from deep. Doc would be wise not to overuse him given his defensive deficiencies, but for the inevitable stretches where baskets are tough to come by, nobody can provide instant offense quite like Jamal.
- Jazz X-Factor — He isn’t one of their biggest names, but Jazz starting shooting guard Rodney Hood could be critical if Utah is going to be able to hang with the Clippers starters. Listed at 6-foot-8, he towers over his primary defender, 6-foot-4 J.J. Redick, and presents one of the few offensive mismatches that the Jazz may be able to exploit. Averaging 12.7 points per game this year, but doing it on 40.8% shooting, Hood is a streaky outside shooter who could easily catch fire and swing a game or two in the series. Redick is a capable one-on-one defender, but he’ll have his hands full with the third-year from Duke.
Be sure to check in on the terrific work that our counterpart is doing over at SLC Dunk, and buckle up - it’s going to be a fun series.